Retention Strategies for International Students

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Since the mid-2000s, international student enrollment in U.S. postsecondary institutions has increased by 35 percent, from approximately 564,800 in 2005-06 to 764,500 in 2011-12. During this time period, the number of international students as a percentage of total postsecondary students has also steadily increased, from 3.2 percent to 3.7 percent. With over 100,000 international students, California institutions of higher learning are the leading destination for this student group.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, international students contribute more than $22.7 billion to the U.S. economy based not only on tuition payments, but also on living arrangements, transportation, and purchases such as books and supplies.3 A recent report by NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, notes that, in California alone, the net economic contribution of international students is estimated at $3.2 billion.

International students are important contributors to higher education, not only as purchasers of educational opportunities, but also as individuals who bring unique perspectives, cultural backgrounds, and talents to their hosting institutions. Individual institutions can reduce the investment required for continuous recruitment by ensuring international students return each semester and by promoting positive word-of-mouth recommendations in key regions.

This report examines effective strategies for international student retention and comprises the following two sections:

  • Section I: Retention Strategies for International Students discusses common social, cultural, and academic challenges facing international students. In addition, we examine effective retention strategies to address these challenges, including pre-arrival orientation, ongoing acculturation programs, internationalization of the campus community, peer programs, and administrative solutions.
  • Section II: Case Profiles examines the international student retention services and programs at three large, public institutions.

Key Findings

  • Coordination and collaboration among international programs, academic units, and support services help institutions effectively monitor international students and develop targeted initiatives  Partnering with key units allows international offices to identify students who are struggling academically, offer career services, implement crisis intervention and prevention, and promote academic integrity. Collaborative efforts may include joint workshops, professional development seminars, and cross-unit committees.
  • A defined feedback mechanism that gauges the international student experience may help in determining the effectiveness of institutional programs Possible assessment methods include surveys, focus groups, and town halls. Because the needs of this student group are diverse, comprehensive data collection can be critical in improving and developing key services.
  • Providing ample pre-arrival information can facilitate international students’ transition to U.S. college life Incoming international students benefit from detailed information regarding visa interviews and documentation, orientation and check-in procedures, housing options, health insurance, transportation, packing, and finances. Some institutions have established a mandatory, virtual, pre-arrival orientation for incoming international students.
  • International students can benefit from for-credit courses in American academic and social culture, offered before or during the regular semester These courses address classroom expectations, faculty-student interactions, academic integrity, and social norms. These programs may also help prevent counterproductive behaviors, such as not participating in classes, not asking for clarification, and interacting only with other international students, as opposed to domestic peers.
  • Peer programs offer linguistic and cultural mentorship for international students Depending on the goal, peer programs may pair international and domestic students, or newly arrived and veteran international students. Loyola Marymount University (LMU), for example, has developed the iMentor program, which brings together incoming undergraduate international students and current LMU students. The program matches students before the start of the semester so that international students have a go-to student contact prior to arrival.
  • Faculty, staff members, and course instructors play key roles in promoting international students’ academic and social success International offices may offer training sessions and develop informational resources to educate university staff and faculty on effective techniques for communicating with international students, including limited use of regional jargon and checking with students to ensure understanding.
  • Consider developing outreach and leadership activities for international students to promote cross-cultural interactions Research indicates that international students who befriend local students adjust more successfully, but many international students may find it difficult to socialize outside of their nationality group. Such programs connect international students with fellow students and the broader community.

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